It starts at 2.30am. A few intrepid individuals begin the descent, waddling comically down the snow-smothered slope. Others soon follow until there are hundreds marching determinedly down the hill – a veritable avalanche of penguins, each one rocking side to side like a wind-up toy.
Normally, these gentoo penguins would make their way down to the rocky beach and dive straight into the frigid waters of Neko Harbour to feed. But tonight, they find something curious along the way. Sprinkled along a raised snowy plateau above the shoreline are dozens of strange creatures in shallow trenches. The penguins waddle over to take a closer look. How bizarre, they think. What are these curious animals? And why are they wearing so much stuff?
I only know about this because several people capture it on video. Annoyingly, I manage to sleep through the entire two-hour spectacle, which is quite a feat given sleep is usually an elusive commodity when spending a night outside in Antarctica.
"If you're lucky, you might get a couple of hours," warned expedition leader Hilary Cave during the pre-camp briefing. "But we'll collect you at 5.30am so you can nap back on the ship."
Given "the ship" in question is the Greg Mortimer, Aurora Expedition's swanky new purpose-built vessel, I'm surprised how many people have opted to trade their sumptuous ensuite cabins for an alfresco hand-dug ditch. Aurora limits this free camping excursion to 40 passengers but it's already booked out with a waiting list by the time we set sail from Ushuaia.
Toilet facilities at the "campsite" consist of the sea and a portable loo called the "Thunder Down Under". Because of this, Cave advises everyone not to drink too much during dinner before being ferried over by Zodiac. Of course, most of us ignore this.
After being deposited on the snowy plateau, we each dig a shallow pit, unroll our sleeping mat and return to the vital task of insulating ourselves against the sub-zero temperatures with copious amounts of alcohol. One couple has emptied the contents of their cabin's minibar; one person produces several whiskey miniatures he smuggled off a flight; someone else has a water bladder filled with red wine.
As penguins shuffle nonchalantly back and forth among us, we drink, laugh and try to comprehend the sheer privilege of being in such a spectacular setting.
Neko Harbour is a small inlet on the eastern coast of the Antarctic Peninsula that is flanked by steep granite cliffs and towering glaciers. At one point our revelry is interrupted by a thunderous crack as a large ice sheet calves off a nearby glacier and crashes into the sea.
We eventually retire around midnight, conscious that the Zodiac boats will return to collect us in less than six hours' time. Thanks to an insulated sleeping mat, two sleeping bags and a multi-layered cocoon of thermal clothing, my concerns about being cold are unfounded.
However, Cave's prediction about the lack of sleep is accurate, although that's mostly because I've inadvertently positioned myself between two members of the Canadian Olympic snoring team. I finally nod off around 2am, just in time to miss the March of the Penguins, and wake up bleary-eyed at 5am.
In less than an hour, I'll be back onboard, showered and cradling a restorative hot coffee, but for now, I try to savour an experience I may never repeat – waking up on the planet's highest, driest, coldest continent.
Aurora Expeditions' new ship, the Greg Mortimer, is the first passenger vessel to use the revolutionary X-Bow hull, which improves fuel efficiency and handling in heavy seas. The 140-passenger ship has been designed specifically for polar exploration and features virtual anchoring, hydraulic viewing platforms and a floating activity marina. Antarctica trips resume in January 2022 and start from $US9260 ($12,620). See auroraexpeditions.com.au
Polar camping is an optional activity offered on selected Antarctica voyages. Limited to 40 people, it's available on a first-come/first-serve basis and costs $US150 (approx. $A208).
Rob McFarland was a guest of Aurora Expeditions.